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Why starting up an agency means going back to basics

What does your creative director actually do?

Do they curate the ideas of their team, giving a metaphorical (or perhaps even literal in some cases) thumbs up or down to highlight preferences? Do they come up with the best ideas themselves? Do they get their hands dirty and design things, using their computer for something other than emails and ebay?

I know exactly what our creative director is doing – I can see his screen and everything. Right now, he (Simon) is designing an infographic for one of our clients’ social channels, then he’ll be putting together the call sheet for our upcoming shoot – sending storyboards to the videographer and various tearsheets to the photographer – and before he finishes, he’s also putting the finishing touches to our pitch deck for a fashion retailer next week. (And if you’re reading this and you have an unhappy fashion retailer client, then it’s probably yours we’re talking to, so be afraid – we’re lean, mean and have a slide in our office, not to mention brilliant sweets that we take to every meeting.)

But the point is, normally when you get to creative director level or perhaps any position when ‘director’ is the suffix, then – in all honesty – quite often, no matter how they try to convince you otherwise, the getting your hands dirty bit is left to others.

Which often makes sense. Those ‘others’ may have only ever known a world in which all the various platforms we now work in exist, so perhaps it’s best left to them. Or their ‘per hour’ rate might not justify them mocking up a scamp or plotting a storyboard or playing with fonts.

When you start up your own agency, however, there’s no room for ‘curators’ of other people’s work – you have to do the work yourself. And if you don’t know how to do it, then you learn how to do it. What makes a creative director is not an aptitude for using a programme or a platform, it’s the ‘creative’ viewpoint – so once you learn a new platform, you then apply it just as you did before. But too often, that doesn’t happen.

A vast amount of creative directors first started out in a non-digital age and if they’ve been in the role for any length of time, key platforms we now rely upon for campaigns either didn’t exist or weren’t important – especially in our new content-driven marketing world. Likewise anyone with a marketing or communications degree earned 10 years ago will have been given an education in a world completely different to the one which we occupy today.

Yes, some will have done the courses to top things up – an evening here, a weekend there – and may even set up their own accounts on different platforms to ‘stay in touch’.

But running your own account on social is entirely different to doing it for a brand. Brands come with pre-conceptions, reputations and, above all, are treated with suspicion. Follow, like, or retweet them and before you know it they’ll have taken your house, your children and you’ll find them in bed with your wife. Damn you brands, damn you. At least that’s what some people think.

The point is, you have to get involved at ground level, to properly understand and work with a platform, any platform – and if you start-up that’s exactly what you have to do. Chin-scratching, looking pensive and then pointing at the work you like are not skillsets any start-up looks for.

It’s the same for strategy, the reason you work in strategy is not usually because of a specific platform, but your ability to be strategic – learn the platform, apply the skill.

Before starting eric, I was purely strategic for the best part of three years. I used all the research, all the data available (just like every other strategist ever – we all essentially dig in the same spots), and plotted the best way to do things in the logical method I’d always applied to everything – without ever actually posting, writing, or shooting a single bit of content myself. That’s all changed now, to the point where I’ve even developed RSI in my right-hand due to excessive social media posting, I write more than ever, and can create GIFs with the best of them – at super-short notice. You learn that no matter what the research says, nothing – especially in the organic world when you’re not forcing content down someone’s throat – is guaranteed.

No matter what you post, when you post it, where you post it, some things just don’t work – you can increase the odds of them working, but never really guarantee it. Likewise, some things work and you’ve no idea why – you sent it out on a whim or a hunch, and it smashed it. You can do that kind of thing when you’re hands on. When your strategist sits next to your writer, opposite your designer, and when your head of video actually wields a camera and not a schedule – now and again, amid all the organised, pre-planned stuff, you can just try things. It’s not the foundation of your work, but it’s a nice flexibility to have, and it’s something you only really get in smaller, faster, better-looking and funnier agencies.

This back-to-basics isn’t just about creative and strategy either, it goes up to business director level too. We’ve only got one of those (Jane), and unlike many non-business directors across agency land, we actually know what she does. Her excel formula for working out costs isn’t a pre-ordained algorithm that nobody ever questions but understands it has something to do with the huge payments on the central London office multiplied by director bonuses multiplied by a random number with a zero or five added on. She actually works it out according to business needs, so when she finds herself discussing costs with potential clients (ie your unhappy fashion retailer), we can justify every penny of the formula.

Of course, it’s too obvious what the response to this should be. We are only a year in, we have five clients, and yes let’s see what we say in a year. But one principle we will hold true is everyone maintaining a presence at ground level. How could we survive in this competitive environment if we don’t understand the platforms and their nuances? Especially when we label ourselves a ‘multi-platform, content agency’. We have no choice but to stay sharp, stay relevant and understand every platform, not relying on others to do the ‘relevant’ bit for us.

Going back to basics has never been more complicated.

Alex Mead is content director of content marketing agency eric